Gingrich or Romney? GOP faced with clear choice in two-horse race …Newt Gingrich has surged in the polls – and Romney’s team is worried. But how do the two Republican frontrunners compare?
Mitt Romney has a serious weakness for a candidate seeking the White House: he appears uncomfortable meeting and greeting voters. So his 45-minute door-knocking session in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the weekend was a rarity – a clear indication of growing anxiety over the sudden rise of Newt Gingrich.
Until last week, Romney had been cruising towards the Republican nomination with a quiet, barely visible campaign, apparently safe in the knowledge that, as runner-up in 2008, he was virtually guaranteed the nomination this time around. Romney focused his criticism on Barack Obama, and largely ignored his Republican rivals.
«Gingrich is for real, and Romney has to be extremely unhappy at this point – and nervous,» Norm Ornstein, an independent analyst at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, the powerhouse of neo-conservatism, said.
Gingrich has jumped within weeks from single digits in the polls to leading in three of the four early states – Iowa, South Carolina and Florida – and he is narrowing the gap in the fourth, New Hampshire. He is also picking up the remnants of Herman Cain’s support.
The latest poll, by the Washington Post and ABC News, puts Gingrich on 33% in Iowa, with Mitt Romney on 18%.
«If Gingrich does not self-destruct, or stories, old and new, about his peccadilloes do not damage him, Romney will have to fight to stay above water and hope Gingrich drowns,» Ornstein said. «This may be a long nomination process.»
How do the two stack up? With 30 days left until the first of the contests – the Iowa caucus on January 3 – Gingrich has the momentum. But will this be enough to overcome his lack of campaign organisation?
Romney, 64, whose estimated wealth is anything between $190m and $250m, has a staff of 80, has raised more than $32m, and has established a network of thousands of volunteers in the early-voting states.
Gingrich has been running a shoestring operation since his staff resigned en masse in June, claiming he was not serious about campaigning. At the end of September, he was $1m in debt, though his staff say he has brought in more than $4m since then and has, belatedly, begun recruiting staff.
The lack of organisation could be a major problem in Iowa. Caucuses need volunteers to get the vote out. There are more than 1,600 separate precincts in Iowa, and each campaign needs a precinct captain to get volunteers to the caucus site for at least a couple of hours, a big organisational effort on a wintry evening, especially when the alternative is live coverage of a big football game.
Ed Rollins, who managed Mike Huckabee’s surprise victory in Iowa in 2008, said it would be hard for Gingrich to pull it off in only a matter of weeks – but that it could be done. Cain’s team, beginning with just 30 precinct captains on 20 October, had recruited over 900 when his campaign was suspended last weekend.
Gingrich, who is due to go to Iowa this weekend to campaign and to attend one of two presidential debates before Christmas, is launching the first of his ads in the state from Wedneday, to air all week at a cost of $250,000.
Aged 68, he is trying to turn a potential weakness – the feeling that he has been around forever (he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1978) – into a plus, by appealing to nostalgics. In his TV ad, he says: «Some people say the America we know and love is a thing of the past. I don’t believe that.» Romney is matching this with $250,000 in adverts in Iowa as well.
There is not much enthusiasm in the higher ranks of the Republican party for either man, amid doubts about their ability to beat a vulnerable Obama. But Romney is closer to being the Republican establishment candidate than Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has the backing of eight senators and 41 House members against only seven House members for Gingrich.
Romney’s biggest weakness is his perceived lack of personality: he is viewed as aloof, staid and boring. As a Mormon, he does not drink alcohol, coffee or tea, preferring, according to his wife Ann in an interview last week, Over the Moon low-fat hot chocolate. His politics are as cautious as his drinking habits.
Mark McKinnon, who was one of Republican senator John McCain’s advisers in his 2008 White House run, said voters were looking for someone bold. «And that’s the problem for Romney. He reminds me of the old Walter Mondale campaign theme: ‘Dare to be cautious’. And that’s not what voters are looking for right now,» McKinnon, who compares Gingrich’s sudden rise to Lazarus, told MSNBC.
Brother or second cousin?
Romney comes out badly in focus groups. Peter Hart, who has been a pollster for more than 40 years, on behalf of presidential candidates, senators and governors, held a focus group of 12 Republicans in Virginia on Thursday to compare Gingrich and Romney.
«Gingrich came out pretty well in terms of personal connections,» Hart, who works for the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, said. Asked if Gingrich was a relative, what kind would he be, many answered «brother», whereas Romney was described as a «second cousin».
«The bad news for the Romney campaign is that there is not much of a personal connection,» Hart said. On issues other than personal connections, Gingrich’s advantage faded. Asked what Romney and Gingrich would do if in a queue for an oversold plane, the respondents said both would have no compunction about using their wealth or influence to secure a ticket.
The Romney campaign has not yet worked out how to deal with Gingrich: options range from an aggressive approach by Romney or surrogates to patiently waiting in expectation he will self-destruct.
The differences between Romney and Gingrich in policy terms are not huge, as both are well within the bounds of Republican orthodoxy. The main difference is that Romney’s approach is disciplined, while Gingrich sprays ideas around, giving the impression he is making it up as he goes along.
Romney is regarded with suspicion by the Republican right wing, particularly those in the Tea Party, because of his time as governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country, when he introduced a healthcare system at state level not dissimilar to the one Obama introduced nationwide. He also supported abortion. He has since shifted on both issues.
Gingrich, though regarded as more conservative than Romney, is viewed with suspicion, too, having at various times supported health reform and called for action on climate change, and a fortnight ago risked alienating right-wingers by calling for a «humane» approach to illegal immigrants, though he has since hardened his stance by proposing completion of a fence along the US-Mexican border by January 2014.
Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the biggest of the Tea Party organisations, is not impressed with either candidate. «I think both are quite flawed candidates in regard to their conservatism. And they both have track records, in statement and deed, that prove it,» Meckler said.
Gingrich wins a lot applause at his campaign events with proposals to reform social security, employing technology used by credit card companies to help crack down on benefit fraud. Romney’s big idea is to take on China over alleged currency manipulation, hinting at a possible trade war.
But, on the whole, both are well within the Republican economic mainstream. Romney proposes cutting corporate tax to 25%, while Gingrich favours 12.5%.
On foreign policy, the differences are again marginal, with Gingrich proposing a more aggressive approach to Iran, mainly through covert, deniable actions. But both adhere to many of the policies inherited from the Bush administration: for instance, regarding waterboarding as a defensible tactic and denying it is torture.
Until this week, the Democrats had focused their attacks on Romney, working on the assumption that he would be the Republican nominee to face Obama in November next year. But they too recognise the threat posed by Gingrich. Obama’s campaign strategist, David Axelrod, recalling how Gingrich helped close down the government in the 1990s, described him on Monday as «the Godfather of Gridlock».
However, if faced with a choice between Gingrich or Romney, the Democrats would choose Gingrich.
As Democratic congressman Barney Frank said, in reference to the Republicans’ landslide defeat in the 1964 White House race: «He would be the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater.»